Mount Cashel, 30 Years Later

How many Catholics, I wonder, of those who continue to attend Mass at least weekly — praying, singing, listening to homilies and participating in the Eucharist — ever give serious thought to the ongoing and possibly greatest scandal in the Catholic Church’s history? Is it a case of “I’m alright Jack (or Jill)?” Has the devastation of the abuse scandal been conveniently filed under “Matters to which we can’t or won’t devote any time or thought?”

Some Catholics, who had no actual experience of clergy abuse in their own immediate families, contended the victims were “only in it for the money” or that “compensation is causing us to lose our churches.” Others complained openly of the inconvenience of having to subject themselves to police checks in order to be involved in parish work involving children. Still others simply refused to accept that such horrible crimes were being committed in their midst or that priests could ever be involved in such a travesty.

Mount Cashel Orphanage. (Source: CBC NL)

Mount Cashel Orphanage. (Source: CBC NL)

But some are not so indifferent. I recently met a fellow Catholic — a woman who attends mass not weekly but daily, is very involved in church activities, has served as a Eucharistic Minister for years and is a loyal member of the Catholic Women’s League — who, with no prompting from me, told me she was seriously considering whether she will continue to attend church.

What prompted this possible decision was an interview she’d heard with a Mount Cashel survivor, part of a CBC Atlantic Voice documentary marking the 30th anniversary of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s decision to re-open an investigation into allegations of child abuse at the Mount Cashel Boys’ Home, an orphanage operated by the Irish Christian Brothers in St. John’s. The investigation was re-started on 15 February 1989.

I wonder if Pope Francis or any of the organizers of last week’s conference of bishops on sexual abuse recognized the significance of the date? It’s possible it was lost in what one writer called the “hurricane of abuse” that has hit the church over the past 30 years — a hurricane that does not seem to have blown itself out in any discernible way so far.

 

Mount Cashel wasn’t the first crack in what the Chicago Tribune in 1989 called “a horrible dike.” The first crack was the arrest, in 1988, of Father James Hickey, who was charged with 20 counts of sexual assault and gross indecency committed against altar boys in several Newfoundland communities over a 17-year period. He was convicted in October 1988 and given a five-year sentence. (Hickey died in 1992.)

Here was a “man of God” who not only abused young children, but actually sent his victims pictures of himself as part of the official party who welcomed Prince Charles and Princess Diane during a visit to St. John’s.

Two months later, Father John Corrigan pled guilty to five charges of gross indecency and two charges of sexual assault on young boys. He too received a five-year sentence (he died in 2017, at the age of 86).

The convictions of Hickey and Corrigan — and the attention being focused on abusive priests — led to the revelations about Mount Cashel.

 

Hhe Congregation of Irish Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic lay order (whose members took vows of celibacy), arrived in Newfoundland in 1876, opening schools and, in 1898, an orphanage. Very soon, they came to occupy places of respect and influence in the community such that, by the early 1970s, as the 100th anniversary of their arrival in Newfoundland approached, a commission was established to prepare for the celebrations. Its members included a cabinet minister, the St. John’s police chief and other elite of the area. Unfortunately for the planners, rumors of the Brothers abusing the young residents in their charge also began to surface around this time.-

he Orphan Boys at Mount Cashel, St. Johns, who sowed, reaped and threshed 600 bushels of oats this year at Mount Cashel. - Newfoundland Quarterly, p. 17 (1909)

Orphan Boys at Mount Cashel, St. Johns, who sowed, reaped and threshed 600 bushels of oats this year at Mount Cashel. – Newfoundland Quarterly, p. 17 (1909)

These included claims made in 1974 by Bobby Connors and Billy Earle, who were taken to the Department of Social Services by Earle’s father, William. By Billy Earle’s account, the boys were sent back by taxi to Mount Cashel where they were handed over to their abuser, a Brother English. No action was taken based on their complaints.

But in 1975, a fifth complaint about the Brothers finally resulted in a police investigation:

A Mount Cashel volunteer, Chesley Riche, suspected that a nine-year-old resident, Shane Earle, had been physically abused by a Christian Brother. On 7 December 1975, Riche telephoned an acquaintance in the RCMP, Corporal Gerald McGuire, as well as Earle’s mother. He contacted Social Services the following day. McGuire and two social workers interviewed Earle. He was badly bruised from a recent beating and taken to the Janeway Child Health Centre for examination. The physician reported the matter to the Newfoundland Constabulary, which opened an investigation on 9 December under detective Robert Hillier.

Hillier interviewed 24 boys, ranging in age from eight to 17. Almost all reported some form of physical or sexual abuse at the orphanage. He also interviewed Brothers Alan Ralph and Edward English, who both admitted to child molestation. 1

The Constabulary’s chief and assistant chief ordered Hillier to end his investigation. A deal was made, no charges were laid, some of the Brothers quietly left town. And in 1976, a book dedicated to the Brothers and their 100 years of service was published by the Catholic community. It was titled The Brothers Are Coming.

Then, in 1988, as noted above, Hickey and Corrigan were charged with sexual abuse.

 

On 13 February 1989, Robert Hyslop, Newfoundland’s associate deputy attorney general, received a telephone call from a woman who demanded a public inquiry into the 1975 Mount Cashel investigation. That same night, a caller to radio station VOCM’s popular Open Line radio show alleged that police and government officials had covered up the results of an investigation into the orphanage in the 1970s.” 2

Hyslop asked the Constabulary to send him the files from the initial Mount Cashel investigation and notified the province’s justice minister, Lynn Verge, what he was doing. On 15 February 1989, Verge announced the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary was reopening the investigation.

Shane Earle (Source: CBC)

Shane Earle (Source: CBC)

Around the same time, Phillip Lee, a reporter for The Sunday Express, a weekly newspaper in St. John’s, also got a phone call about the 1975 investigation. He remembers going to Mount Cashel and asking some questions that led to a story — the first — about the abuse. Lee considered it more than just a story of the Catholic church hiding abuse of children. It was also the story of social workers, educators, the police and the justice system placing children in the Christian Brothers’ orphanage knowing full well what was happening behind the walls of the institution. Lee was criticized for the article by local business leaders who accused him of undermining “the good work being done by the Brothers.”

In March 1989, Sunday Express editor Michael Harris published the first of two articles based on interviews with Shane Earle, the first Mount Cashel victim to go public. In April, the province appointed a Commission of Inquiry into the justice system’s handling of the abuse accusations at Mount Cashel headed by retired Ontario Supreme Court Judge Samuel Hughes. The inquiry heard more than 200 witnesses over 156 days.

Gwen Mercer, who received standing as a participant at the inquiry, told Newfoundland radio host Darren Power recently that the testimony about the abuse was “uncomfortable for people in the room” — including the lawyers — “to accept, and to talk about” but that it “broke the code of silence” not only for the church but for government. A behavioral science nurse (and survivor of abuse herself) Mercer said the 30th anniversary of the inquiry was worthy of celebration, although the experience itself had been “emotionally draining.”

Mercer said some of the victims, asked on the stand to remember and relive the horrors they had endured, would “go into flashback,” as questioners pushed them to recount details of abuse “too painful to even admit happened to them.” Mercer said she’d intervene, telling the questioners they shouldn’t push the victims so hard.

When asked what had surprised her most about the inquiry, Mercer said it was the testimony of the Director of Social Services who, when asked why kids who had come forward with accusations against the Brothers were returned to Mount Cashel, said that while he was supposed to take such accusations “under advisement,” there was “no rule that forced him to act.”

Other officials, asked the same question, gave a similar answer, they “followed the policies.” Mercer felt that the victims were “often drilled like criminals” but she saw them as “brave children” telling the truth while the government and the Catholic Church were “coming down on them.”

 

Ultimately, some 15 former Christian Brothers were prosecuted and nine convicted. During a sentencing hearing for Brother Doug Kenny, Superintendent of Mount Cashel from 1971-1976, who was convicted of assaulting seven boys at the orphanage, Justice Leo Barry observed:

He preyed in a calculated manner, with utter disregard for their psychological well-being, upon the bodies of young, often-orphan boys who were completely within his control when he was supposed to be looking after their welfare. If anything is the epitome of evil, it is this.

“The epitome of evil,” words used to describe yet another “man of God.”

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s commissioned its own inquiry in 1990 which called out the Archdiocesan administration for ineffectiveness and negligence in dealing the allegations of child abuse and led to the resignation of Archbishop Alphonsus Penney. The Mount Cashel Orphanage was closed in 1990 and demolished in 1992.

Pope Francis and Presdents of Bishops' Conferences at Meeting on The Protection of Minors in the Church. February 2019. (Source: Vatican News)

Pope Francis and Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences at Meeting on The Protection of Minors in the Church. February 2019. (Source: Vatican News)

The Newfoundland government paid out $11-million in an out-of-court settlement with about 40 victims in 1997 and in April 2003, an Ontario Superior Court judge awards approximately $16 million to 83 Mount Cashel victims. Individual payments are made in 2004 and range from $20,000 to $600,000.

In 2014, the Christian Brothers of Ireland settled with 422 people across North America, including 160 from Newfoundland and Labrador, the vast majority of whom had been residents at Mount Cashel.

There are still a number of outstanding lawsuits connected to the Mount Cashel case.

Mount Cashel was the first of the many abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church over the past 30 years, and yet, here we were in 2019, watching as the Pope brought his bishops to Rome for a summit on sexual abuse of children by clergy. Four days of reflection and discussion to attempt to educate bishops on their approach to such abuse. A National Catholic Reporter editorial stated:

The church is being made small in this current, major humiliation. The bishops themselves are no longer hedging, acknowledging publicly that they’ve lost their moral credibility. In many ways the Catholic community has become a point of ridicule, living proof for some that faith is an absurdity and that religious practice is tantamount to engaging in a fraud that ultimately is dangerous to children.

The editorial calls for prayer and psalm reading, looking to God to bring about the dramatic changes that would allow the church to regain its once treasured position in the lives of Catholics. I, for one, don’t buy it.

Christ may have established this church but, unfortunately, he left mere mortals in charge of it and mere mortals, especially many of those who have risen to the highest ranks of the clergy, have proven unworthy of his trust.

 

Featured image: Mount Cashel Orphanage, CBC photo.

 

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Website, “Mount Cashel Orphanage Abuse Scandal
  2. Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, Mount Cashel Orphanage Abuse Timeline